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Gerald Winegrad: Gray squirrels are the most common wild animal around us | COMMENTARY

Eastern Gray Squirrel - Sciurus carolinensis, frontal closeup of this cautious squirrel peering out from behind a tree.
Eastern Gray Squirrel - Sciurus carolinensis, frontal closeup of this cautious squirrel peering out from behind a tree. (RT-Images / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) we see around us is a native North American tree-dwelling rodent.

It is the most common wild animal we observe, active during the day and found in a great variety of woodland, parks, and suburban/urban habitats in every Maryland county—just about anywhere there are trees. This critter has adapted well to humans and altered habitats. Many folks consider them their wild pets, while others see them as pests.

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This furry mammal ranges from Florida to Canada and to just west of the Mississippi. They were once confined to dense forests, serving as a food source for Native Americans and settlers. Beginning in the mid-19th century and well into the 20th century, the gray squirrel was introduced into urban parks including in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC.

Naturalists, humane activists, and park designers lauded the moral advantages of having squirrels in the city. Urban residents fed squirrels as an entertaining pastime, sign of compassion, and community-mindedness. In 1977, Lafayette Park in DC reached one of the highest squirrel densities ever recorded due to daily feeding of nuts.

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The squirrels also were introduced to other U.S. locations as far away as Washington state and to European countries, South Africa, and Australia (now extirpated). In England, they are ranked behind only Norway rats in negative invasive species impacts.

The gray squirrel body is up to 12 inches in length with a tail as long as 10 inches, and can weigh 1.5 pounds. Their brown, black, and white fur blends together to look gray serving as camouflage from predators which include hawks, owls, red foxes, raccoons, snakes, and domestic cats. This tree rodent’s ability to jump from one tree to another is used to escape predators. 

Motor vehicles also are a source of mortality. The Maryland hunting season runs from Sept. 5 to Feb. 27 with daily bag limits of six. In Mississippi, 2.5 million squirrels are harvested annually with $12.5 million in economic impact.

Their bushy tails serve many functions from shade to balance to a rudder when swimming. Color variants for gray squirrels include black, white, and blonde. In 1902, black eastern gray squirrels were brought from Ontario, Canada to roam the National Zoo in Washington.  Every black squirrel seen in the D.C. area today may be related to these Canadian immigrants. There are a few black squirrels in this area and they were common in forests centuries ago.

The gray squirrel is quite vocal and makes a barking sound, also emitting buzzing, wailing, and purring sounds.  I used to confuse their sounds for a bird but have learned when it is a scolding squirrel.

Eastern gray squirrels build a type of nest known as a drey in the forks of trees, consisting mainly of dry leaves and twigs and insulated with moss and dried grass. Squirrels may share a drey to stay warm. Trees most commonly used are white oak, American beech, American elm, red maple and sweet gum. Old woodpecker holes or tree cavities are used as dens to live in and raise young.

Female gray squirrels bear an average of three to four hairless, helpless babies and normally breed at 15 months, typically having two litters per year. The young are dependent on mom for three months. Only 25% of gray squirrels survive their first year with average longevity at 2 to 3 years.  Very few grow older than 7 though some have reached 13.

This mammalian munching machine eats a varied diet preferring acorns and nuts and also feasting on berries, fruits, buds, fungi, insects, bird eggs and nestlings. They have 22 teeth and must chew regularly as their sharp incisors grow as they age. They are masters at finding ways to raid bird feeders. My heavy plastic baffle on an old feeder was chewed away so they could reach the seeds proving they can chew through almost anything.

As a scatter-hoarder, food is dug into several thousand small ground caches for later dining. As squirrels are seed dispersers, they expand forests and are important members of the forest ecosystem.

Ever wonder why squirrels chase each other across lawns and down trees? While not territorial, adults form dominance hierarchies and use chasing to establish dominance. In the late winter, males chase females as part of the mating process. Young squirrels chase each other in a playful manner to develop coordination, strength, and skills.and perhaps just for fun!

Four other squirrel species occur in Maryland: red squirrels; southern flying squirrels; eastern fox squirrels; and  Delmarva fox squirrels.

The eastern gray squirrel is a welcome source of entertainment during COVID 19 confinement. While one of the most common U.S. squirrels, there is nothing common about them.

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